Rida’s Musical Folks Sing For Planet Earth

She is only in her 30s but her music is ancient. Inspired by nature and wildlife, she composes tunes along with her band of gifted folk artistes from her home state Meghalaya, many of whom are in their 50s and 60s.

Meet Rida Gatphoh, founder, songwriter and lead singer of 'The Musical Folks', who tries to reach out to her people by studying and documenting their work while writing and composing songs.

“Even though most youngsters in my state are into high voltage music, like rock, pop hip-hop and reggae, I have always preferred traditional music. It’s been an intrinsic part of my life ever since I was a little girl, as my mother, Preciously, is a folk singer.

“I grew up listening to folk instruments, poetry and song and started singing early in local bands. This continued even when I went to Mumbai to pursue a degree in fashion designing,” shares Gatphoh.
After she finished her studies, she did stick on for a few years in the Maximum City designing clothes, but as she says, “I was not happy. I longed to get back to my original passion, music.” And she did. Bag and baggage she went back to Shillong.

But instead of staying put there Gatphoh embarked on a journey of the tranquil and lush Meghalaya countryside. “I travelled across different villages in a bid to better understand my roots and connect with nature.

“I soaked in the sounds of birds and other wild animals, and heard countless folk tales and poems. All these inputs served as inspiration and I began composing and writing songs,” she recalls.
Along the way, Gatphoh made many friends, many of whom are now a part of the band, The Musical Folks, which she put together in 2010.

Her motley crew of musicians includes Bah Rojet Buhphang, a recipient of the Ustad Bismallah Khan Yuva Pushkar in 2007 for his contribution to traditional music of Meghalaya; Bah S. Malngiang, co-founder of Sieng Riti Institute for folk music in Wahkhen, East Khasi Hills; Peter Marbaniang, a ceramic artist and a duitara and guitar player; composer and guitarist Amarnath Hazarika; Sean Menzies Nongrum, who plays bom and brass; bamboo flautist Benedict Skhemlang Hynniewta; Risingbor Kurkalang, who plays the duitara maryngoh; and Shaun Nonghuloo Morehead, the drummer and Ksing player.

The crew combines their creative energies and talent to put up an authentic Khasi show, complete with a Pyrta Shnong, or traditional announcer, who kicks off the proceedings that include a Phawar Mei Mariang (fable for mother nature), Kshaid Nohsngithiang (song), U Sier Lapaing (a musical story-telling session) U PhiangJyrngam (poetry recitation), Ka Sohlyngem (ballad), Leitphaishaiing (children’s song), Shad (Khasi dance) and Kyntanglawai (farewell poem) – all of which are set to the tune of traditional instruments.

Gatphoh feels fortunate to have found so many traditional music practitioners for her group although convincing them to join her in her efforts to revive the forgotten styles was not easy. Usually, village music groups are quite informal and non commercial, which was how they were all used to playing. Moreover, many of them are old and hail from remote locations so getting them to open up to the idea of transforming their approach took time. “Some of my team members are around 60 years old. It took some time for them to wrap their heads around the concept of a formal band that would travel and showcase our local fare to the outside world,” she reveals.

According to Gatphoh, The Musical Folks is always searching for “the ideal way to create a meaningful experience for the new listener while retaining a high degree of artistic integrity”. She says, “The stories we share are open-ended making our interaction spontaneous and giving us an infinite range of expression. They are an intimate exploration designed to reveal the natural communication of music and art and highlight a specific form of nature as a subject of celebration and inquiry.”

The artiste’s works are weaved around nature and the environment. “I strongly believe that mankind must take its cue from nature. Through our music, we are attempting to encourage people to think of the world in which we live today and see how our collective actions are affecting planet earth.”

She feels that everyone must take time out from their extremely busy schedules to connect with nature. “Have you ever heard the sound of frogs? Noticed that every bird has its own distinct chirp? If you observe intently, there are many different sounds and tunes in nature. And they all vary from place to place and depending upon the time of day. Music is there and will always be there in all things natural,” she adds, thoughtfully.

Folk music truly captures the essence of the bond between man and nature and while many may call this style raw and lacking in sophistication, Gatphoh argues that there is “purity, originality and beauty in its complex notes”.

She elaborates, “What we present through our shows is just the tip of the iceberg. Our repertoire of indigenous musical practices is vast. There are many aspects that simply cannot be performed on stage and we haven’t tried to do that.”

Unlike many of her peers, Gatphoh has delved into the realm of history to spark a revival. “In a sense, I am going backwards,” she laughs, “I insist on bringing the old and forgotten musical trends back into vogue. Sadly, today’s generation is hung up on newer, more western styles, which is not bad but one does need to preserve one’s past as well,” she days.

Gatphoh admits that there are no huge crowds at her shows, rather a loyal group of followers. But that in no way deters her from pursuing her goal. On their part, however, the band and she make a conscious effort to remain relevant. “Though we do not have much monetary support,” she says, “our works have become popular through word of mouth, and we have performed in several cities in India. I have understood the fact that we don’t belong to the commercial world. The team’s instruments are handmade, our music is not digitised or polished, which is a statement in itself.”

Ultimately, for Gatphoh, her music is very personal; “it’s a feeling, a journey and a connection with my audiences and, of course, with nature”. Here’s her ode to Mother Nature:

“Let’s have a meaningful interaction,
And reason out with balance
Have a natural healing
Healing for the human, non human
Healing for the soul
The ocean and the sky
The mountains and the valleys…"

 Women's Feature Service

October 2014

Malicious Mainland

People from the North-east continue to feel unsafe in Delhi and other metropolises despite the Centre’s assurance to provide them helplines. This month alone three incidents took place.  An engineering student from Manipur and two friends were beaten up in Bangalore for not speaking Kannada. Two students from Nagaland were assaulted in Gurgaon. A girl from Mizoram was found dead in her rented Munirka room under mysterious circumstances.

Here is a list of incidents in the national capital over the years, drawn from media reports:
On 8 May 2005, a 20-year-old Delhi University student and her friend were abducted from Daula Kuan (South Delhi). While her friend escaped, she was gang-raped in a moving car by four men. Only one person, Ajit Singh Katiyar, was arrested. He was sentenced to 14 years’  rigorous imprisonment  in December 2009.  The defence counsel is said to have  challenged the order in a higher court.

On 24 November 2010, a 30-year-old BPO employee and her friend were abducted at gun point on their way home in Moti Bagh, South Delhi. While her friend escaped and alerted the girl’s relatives, the victim was gang-raped by five men in a truck. The court reportedly ordered payment of Rs 1.5 lakh as compensation for the survivor in May 2014. A Delhi court sentenced the five men to life imprisonment. Except these two cases in which the accused were punished, many others are pending.
In the wee hours of 3 December 2008, the landlord and his men knocked on the door of the room rented by two women from Manipur, asking them to pay rent. This happened in Sikenderpur, Gurgaon (NCR). Their plea that payment would be made early the next morning was of no avail. The landlord broke into the room, abused and assaulted them. Somehow the two managed to ring up their friends who lived nearly and they came to their rescue. The status of the case is not known.
 On 17 April 2009, a six-year-old girl from Manipur was allegedly raped and murdered at Mahipalpur, South Delhi. At noon, she was said to have gone to the terrace of their rented house to dry clothes. When she did not return her mother went up to look for her. After more than half an hour’s search, the mother found her daughter’s body inside the water tank of an adjacent building. The body was sent to Spinal Injury Centre, Vasantkunj, where it was confirmed that she had been raped and murdered. The case is pending.
On 4 October 2009, around 11.20 pm, 19-year-old Ramchanphy Hongray  from Manipur was raped and murdered in her sister’s rented room in Munirka, Delhi. She had come to visit her sister and when the latter had left for work, Pushpa Kumar, an IIT student, forced his way into her room and allegedly raped and murdered her.
To make it look like a case of suicide, he reportedly poured kerosene over her body and set it on fire. In July 2010, the court framed charges against the accused for murder and tampering with the evidence. The case is  pending.
 On 29 May 2013, a 21-year-old beautician from Manipur was found dead under  mysterious  circumstances in her rented flat at Delhi’s Chirag. No one was arrested. The case was handed over to the CBI following strong protests. 
o In January 2014, teenaged student Nido Tania from Arunachal succumbed to injuries after being beaten up by some shopkeepers of Lajpat Nagar. Nido had gone to the area with three friends and was looking for an address when someone at a sweet shop began mocking his hairstyle. Nido responded by breaking a glass door of the sweetshop. Twenty-two-year-old Farman, 27-year-old Akram and 27-year-old Pawan were booked. In May, the CBI dropped charges of murder, saying the accused had no intention of killing him. The status of the case is not known.
 In February 2014, two women from Manipur, Chonmila and Jajo, were assaulted and abused by a group of youths in South Delhi’s Kotla Mubarakpur area. According to complaints by the two women, when one of the culprits tied the leash of his dog to Chonmila’s boots, she panicked and in a bid to free herself she kicked the dog. Seeing this, the men started beating her up. When Jajo tried to intervene, she too was  thrashed by the men who allegedly passed racist comments. There are no reports of any arrest and the case is pending.
 On 7 February 2004, a 14-year-old girl from Manipur was raped by her landlord’s son in South Delhi’s Munirka. It was reported that when she  was making some purchases the culprit — Vicky — allegedly accosted her and forced her to a nearby room and raped her. The girl is said to have received compensation but it is not known whether the culprit has been booked.
 On 22 May 2004 at 10 pm, when a woman from Nagaland was returning home after alighting at Vishwavidyalaya Metro station, a man followed her, passed lewed remarks, caught her and started molesting her near Delhi University.  When she resisted she was slapped. Some passers-by overpowered the molester and handed him over to the police. At the police station, it was revealed that he was a lawyer from Tis Hazari Courts.
The next day, some NE students accompanied the woman to the Tis Hazari Court to record her statement. But they were attacked by a group of lawyers. Naga Students’ Union president Maivio J Woba, Zeliangrong Students’ Union president Rachubui Pamei and advocate Liyi were assaulted. The matter is yet to be placed in the court.
 On 30 June 2014, a woman entrepreneur living in Gurgaon was harassed and intimidated by a man who identified himself as a RAW official. He allegedly barged into her room, interrogated and accused her of indulging in anti- social activities.  The status of the case is not known.
 On 5 -6 July 2014, 28-year-old Wilungbou Chawang was found dead in the Chirag Dilli area. The body was fished out from a nullah after locals reported the matter to the police. His younger brother filed a complaint at the Malviya Nagar police station. Investigation is yet to begin.
 On 21 July 2014, a Manipuri youth was beaten to death by a group of youths in South Delhi’s Kotla Mubarakpur area.
Incidents in other cities include:
 On the evening of 13 August 2005 in Mumbai, a man attacked two girls from Manipur while they were taking pictures and feeding pigeons at the Gateway of India. Twenty-three-year-old Leishichon died on the spot while her friend Ngahuimi Raleng was severely injured. According to the police, the attacker, 27-year-old Juner Patel, was mentally unstable. The Maharashtra government reportedly paid compensation to the victim’s family.
 In October 2010, the Goa police rescued 11 Naga and Mizo girls from a beauty parlour at Povorim, alleging that the owner of the parlour was running a flesh trade. According to the police, the case came to light after the girls fled the parlour and informed their parents back home, who in turn informed their respective state forces.  Both the girls and the owner have denied charges against them.
Following this incident, it was made mandatory for people from the North-east  to report to the police for verification, particularly those women working in beauty parlours and private enterprises in Goa. Some who went to report alleged that they were asked weird questions, some with innuendos such as “whether you are from Nagaland in connection with the case or whether you have come to Goa for the same job”.
 In August 2012, Bangalore witnessed a mass exodus of North-easternes following  threats via social media networking telling them to leave. Thousands working in Pune, Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad left.
Legislation, quick disposal of cases and stringent punishment are desirable to effectively curb racial violence against North-easterners.

The writer is A Delhi-based freelance contributor
The Statesman, NE page, October 27,2014

For Rini and Valentina Singing is their Job , their Life

They enjoy performing live, in a group or solo, at music concerts and in star hotels across Delhi and the National Capital Region. For many, it is a profession that has ensured them a decent living in the city. But even though music comes naturally to the youth from the north east - they do not need any formal training as there's usually a vocalist, guitarist or drummer in the family whom they have grown up watching - there are various challenges that they have to contend with as they move from gig to gig.

Singing is in Valentina Gangte’s blood. A native of Lamka in Manipur, she spent her childhood in Mizoram where her Sundays were dedicated to singing in the church choir along with her elder sister. During those days, her aunts were popular as professional crooners and today her sister, cousins and she have followed in their footsteps. In her mid-thirties, Valentina has been in Delhi since the late 1990s, ever since she moved here to pursue higher education. She started her singing career at 20 as part of a local band, ‘Illusion and West Wind’, and then went solo from 2008. Apart from being a superb vocalist she is proficient at the keyboard as well. “I have been singing for 16 years now. In fact, I am pretty sure that I am possibly amongst the first professional female solo performers from the north east in the Capital,” she says, her voice ringing with immense pride.

Being one of the leading female singers from the north east Valentina has no paucity of work these days. However, that does not mean that it’s been easygoing for her. Unlike most of her friends, who are employed in more formal jobs, her schedule as well as her earnings are erratic, she has to keep a close watch on the contracts drawn with hotels and resto-bars that book her shows, she needs to keep abreast with the tastes of the audiences and, in a city like Delhi, she cannot hope to get home before the wee hours of the morning, which increases her vulnerability to violence and abuse.

Though there are quite a few singers, musicians and bands from the north east in the city, according to Valentina “many have been forced to put an end to their musical dreams, as just one’s love for music is not enough to keep things going”. 

Rini Fanai, who hails from Churachandpur district in Manipur, agrees with Valentina’s observations. In her late 20s now, she had moved to Delhi in 2007 as a student but very soon found herself well entrenched in the local musical scene. She has been in demand as a vocalist since the last six years even though she has had no formal training. “My father is a musician so I guess my talent is a gift from him. In Delhi though, one cannot survive on talent alone. There is a lot of competition and one needs to be updated on the latest songs. Moreover, safeguarding ourselves from unfair contracts is also important. We cannot afford to be lenient there,” she shares. 

For Rini and Valentina, their daily schedule is fairly straightforward: for six days a week, every evening they make their way to the resto-bar or hotel that has hired them to perform. Rarely do they get to call it a day before late at night. Obviously then there are serious safety issues that they contend with on an everyday basis, which is why drawing up a formal deal is crucial. “I always make sure that transportation is included in the agreement. There may not be pick-up if the venue is close by or if I am performing in a group, but I ensure that there is a drop provided after the show,” reveals Rini.

Money and the number of shows are pre-decided as well. Says Valentina, “I work out an arrangement for a minimum of six months to a year and manage to make a decent monthly income .Initially, when I had started out, there were times when I used to get paid even a month or two after the show but experience has made me wiser. I insist on a time limit nowadays.”  Of course, no amount of caution can mitigate all the problems. Rini can recall numerous instances when she started working before the official signing of a contract only to later find herself out of work and without payment for the performances rendered. 

Valentina and Rini agree that the managements in three- and five-hotels are very professional in their dealings. “Whether it is about the payment, the ambience or crowd control, the hotels manage things well. On the rare occasions that someone misbehaves with us or passes an indecent remark, they immediately take care of the situation,” elaborates Rini. 

Apart from these external pressures, personally they have to pay attention to various aspects on which the course of their entire career is dependent. For starters, they have to diligently maintain their voice quality. Only with the utmost care and regular practice sessions can this work out well. Then there is the need to be constantly in sync with current music scene. “We have to be abreast with the flavour of the season and include newer songs in our repertoire. This requires a lot of practice and careful market watching. Performance-wise I do make a conscious effort to get the tune and pronunciation as close to the original as is possible,” says Valentina. 

While mostly their work is well-received Rini admits that sometimes there are complaints from the managements. “It does happen but we always take feedback in a positive way and try and do better. What I do keep in mind is that I am presentable at all times and in-sync with the hottest trends. Personally, I prefer performing at a resto-bar where the crowd is more chilled out and encouraging. It makes the experience that much more rewarding and fun,” she adds.

They are like mini rock stars – they have an image to uphold, songs to prepare, shows to conceptualise and fans to fend off. But it comes at a price. “Being a singer and musician can be quite creatively fulfilling. Nevertheless, this career comes with a lot of peripheral baggage that can really overwhelm the artist in me. Will I give it up for a more stable opportunity? Never!” signs off Valentina, with a gentle smile. 

Women's Feature Services 
September 2014